Iran's 'Invisible Man': The Brigadier General Who Heads Tehran's Covert Operations in Iraq Will Mastermind Revenge Strikes If Iran Is Attacked

The Middle East, August-September 2008 | Go to article overview

Iran's 'Invisible Man': The Brigadier General Who Heads Tehran's Covert Operations in Iraq Will Mastermind Revenge Strikes If Iran Is Attacked


If, AS is threatened, the United States or Israel attacks Iran--and there are signs that a major strike maybe likely before George W. Bush's term expires next January--a key figure in unleashing much of the threatened retaliation by Tehran is a shadowy general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who until a few weeks ago was little known, even to western intelligence services.

Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani, who commands the corps' elite and largely clandestine Quds Force, has long been the invisible man in Iran's intelligence hierarchy and an enigma to the US intelligence community that is one of his main adversaries. He is hailed as a national hero in Iran, but apart from a couple of brief television appearances in recent years has rarely been seen in public.

Until recently the Americans and their allies knew little about him. Former US intelligence agent Philip Giraldi, who spent years operating undercover in the Middle East in the 1980s when Iran was conducting constant "black operations" across the region and in Europe, recalls that although Suleimani was no doubt engaged in these spying and assassination missions he was "pretty much unknown to US intelligence".

Giraldi said there was a file on the softly-spoken general at Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters in Langley, Virginia, at that time, "but it was pretty much empty".

These days, the Americans have come to appreciate how dangerous Suleimani is and how crucial a role he plays in Iran's growing power in the Middle East and its environs. The US Treasury Department has branded him a terrorist, along with his entire military command. In March 2007, he was listed along with other senior Iranians in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1747 that imposed sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt its nuclear programme.

The general emerged from the shadows in March by brokering a truce in a major battle in Basra between the Mahdi Army, the militia of firebrand Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, and the security forces of the Shi'ite-dominated Baghdad government of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, and their allied militias, that was in danger of spinning out of control into a full-scale uprising by Sadr's followers.

The general's ability to end a week of intra-Shi'ite slaughter on the Shatt Al Arab, that was threatening to spread to Baghdad, underlined the authority and power Suleimani wields within the inner circles of the notoriously opaque and secrecy-obsessed Tehran regime and in Iraq. More importantly in the months ahead, his actions illustrate how this perplexing figure is so adept at meshing covert, aggressive operations with strategic diplomacy, a skill his American opponents seem to lack.

The Basra ceasefire also confirmed Iran's immense influence in Iraq, and the extent to which Suleimani's organisation has penetrated the country, from the leadership down to the grassroots, especially in the Shi'ite-dominated south. This strategic region bordering Iran holds two-thirds of Iraq's known oil reserves and is the country's only outlet to the Gulf.

It also testified to Suleimani's control over the Mahdi Army, its main rival, the Badr Organisation, military arm of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and other Shi'ite militias that the Americans say Tehran is backing to weaken and cripple US efforts in Iraq.

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Suleimani was able to impose the truce because it is the Quds Force that is supposedly arming, funding and training Iraqi groups in furtherance of Tehran's grand design to dominate Iraq following Saddam Hussein's demise. "If the Americans want to stop things in Iraq they'll have to talk to Suleimani," a knowledgeable diplomat commented.

So far as is known, that has not happened, but it remains an intriguing possibility as Washington and Tehran edge towards direct negotiations on Iraq. Maliki's beleaguered government has already broken the ice. …

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